From director and screenwriter Edgar Wright, “Last Night in Soho” is a stunning new addition to the vastly popular coming-of-age genre — with a horrific twist.
Wright (“Baby Driver,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) presents the nightmarish journey of self discovery of Eloise “Ellie” Turner (Thomasin McKenzie) with all the trappings of the coming-of-age mold.
He skillfully crafts a girl nearly cut-and-paste from the genre. Ellie is quirky and misunderstood by her peers, and given her obsession with the aesthetic of 1960’s London, likely identifies as “born in the wrong generation.”
McKenzie (“Jojo Rabbit,” “Leave No Trace”) is an excellent choice for the meek, mousy-haired small-town girl leaving for the big city, determined to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a designer at the London College of Fashion.
When her dreams aren’t all they cracked up to be, Ellie finds herself questioning her ambitions and moving off-campus to a flat owned by the elderly Ms. Collins (Diana Rigg). There, Ellie finds an unconventional answer to her disillusionment: a portal into ‘60s London.
The introduction of ‘60s London is glittering and glamorous, enhanced by skilled cinematography and scoring. In one sweeping shot, a busy Soho street bathed in the glow of yellow city lights is revealed to Ellie as the pinnacle of Cilla Black’s 1964 hit,“You’re My World,” collides with the audience.
The bold moment shared between the visuals and music is a trademark of Wright’s films and saturates this one’s greatest moments. The thrills induced by the director’s creative use of color and scoring allows the viewer to share in the awe and confusion Ellie feels as her magical discovery becomes more and more strange.
It’s revealed that in her sleep, Ellie slips into the world of Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), an aspiring singer. As Sandie romps around trendy London nightclubs in an entirely different era, Ellie experiences everything from her 21st century bed.
Ellie grows obsessed with her nights in ‘60s Soho, but more so with the confident and seductive nature of Sandie, who’s everything Ellie wants to be. The storyline of light-hearted self-discovery begins to crumble as the audience is held hostage to the intensification of Ellie’s infatuation — she dyes her hair blonde and spends her nights turning in early, anxious to return to the dream-like life of Sandie.
Ellie’s eagerness to absorb the vivacious personality of Sandie is not only well established through the script by the rejection she constantly faces from her peers, but hints at an unstable part of her on the brink of collapse.
And collapse it does. In a well-executed whirlwind from Wright, the delight turns sinister and what once seemed to be a sweet, coming-of-age tale transforms into a bloody nightmare soaked in neon colors. Dreams seep into reality and Ellie is forced to confront the truth of the story she once loved and the woman she wanted to be.
Ellie’s journey of self-discovery is forced, not by unsympathetic peers, but a chilling fear for her life and state-of-mind, flipping traditions of the genre on its head. In this confusing reversal, the viewer’s preconceived expectations begin to unravel as fast as Ellie’s sanity. The thrilling question of “what could possibly happen next?” is inescapable until the last moments of the film.
It’s in these climactic moments that Wright shines as a director with rich visuals, soundtracking and exceptional pacing that leaves the audience on the edge of their seat. But credit is also due to the exceptional performances from McKenzie, the late Diana Rigg (“Game of Thrones,” “The Painted Veil”) and Matt Smith.
Smith (“The Crown,” “Doctor Who”) terrifies as Sandie’s manipulative boyfriend and manager, Jack. The crescendo of his performance reminds the audience (almost too well) that horrible people can hide the worst of traits behind a guise of charm — yet another twist of expectations from Wright.
Though Anya Taylor-Joy (“The Queen’s Gambit,” “The Witch”) shines the brightest with her portrayal of the splintering Sandie, expertly transitioning from a dreamer filled with ambition to a woman shattered by it. The light that Sandie radiates is incrementally stolen away scene by scene, all thanks to Taylor-Joy’s calculated performance, enhancing the lesson learned by her idolizer Ellie.
The skilled manipulation of a genre’s typical features, transforming the tropes of self-discovery to fit the horror genre, makes “Last Night in Soho” a worthy watch for fans of either genre. Gorgeous cinematography, scoring and performances just happen to be welcome consolation prizes.
“Last Night in Soho,” rated R, is now playing in theaters.